BLUES 22 - BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 16: From “chaos” to “discipline”, the pre- and post-match buzzwords in the Lions camp were as diametrically opposed as what the tourists promised and actually delivered at Eden Park yesterday.
Carved apart by the sort of broken-field play from the Blues, New Zealand’s fifth-ranked of five Super Rugby franchises, to which the Lions presently can only aspire, the best of the bunch are looming large for Warren Gatland’s squad this Saturday.
With the third game of this 10-match tour bringing unbeaten table-toppers the Crusaders into the equation, the Lions’ supporters who have followed them south to Christchurch will be hoping the latest of Gatland’s selections can start to make good on his assertion that the gameplan is starting to take a more meaningful shape.
Certainly first starts for backs Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, and Jon Davies at 9, 10, and 13 should calm some nerves and endorse the party line that the Lions are building diligently towards the first test with the All Blacks back in Auckland on June 24. Yet as Gatland makes good on his promise to give a start to all 41 players in his squad in the first three games, the level of attacking cohesion they will be facing in a Crusaders team which has 14 wins from 14 suggests we are likely going to have to suck up a second straight defeat and trust the camp’s view that a first series win here since 1971 will be worth all this early anguish.
For as disappointing as the Lions were in victory over the Provincial Barbarians last Saturday, they were equally frustrating in game two, lacking penetration in offence save for a first-half maul try from Munster and Ireland’s CJ Stander, sloppy yet again at the breakdown, and vulnerable in defence when the Blues unleashed the chaos the Lions are so desperate to replicate and scored what was the winning try six minutes from time.
The Blues’ second and final try, from replacement fly-half Ihaia West, was an end-to-end masterclass of attacking intent backed by sumptuous skill and pace. Offloads, from No.8 Steven Luatua to Sonny Bill Williams and from the All Blacks centre to West, were made great by excellent support running from the inside backs and sent the Blues home to the delight of the home fans in the 40,639 crowd, with six minutes remaining. West’s conversion turned a one-point game at 16-15 into a 22-16 lead, having seen Leigh Halfpenny kick two penalties to overturn a 15-10 Lions deficit early in the second half.
Credit where it is due, the try was “a moment of magic”, Gatland said and there may have been no stopping West as he danced around Johnny Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny from the Lions’ 10m line to score under the posts. But Luatua’s offload, in contact with Courtney Lawes, to Williams back on the Blues’ 10m line, was assisted by the gap in the line offered to Williams when Maro Itoje shot out and missed his man.
Itoje was not the only transgressor, with Stander just before half-time rushing into a high tackle on Luatua. Stephen Perofeta’s kick struck an upright and in the broken play a grapple for the bouncing ball saw it knocked over the tryline for Williams to slide in and ground.
Both Jack Nowell and Blues’ TJ Faiane looked to have made contact that sent the ball into Williams’ path but TMO Marius Jonker harshly ruled it had been the Lion alone and there was no knock-on.
Perofeta’s conversion gave the Blues a 12-10 half-time lead, Rieko Ioane having exposed some narrow defence from the Lions to grab the opening try on seven minutes.
Yet Stander’s concession of the initial penalty highlighted the tourists’ shortcomings as much as their inability to defend the offload. It was one of 13 on the night and a 57th- minute yellow card for replacement back Liam Williams after consecutive aerial clearouts, and prompted much mention of the D word.
Attack coach Rob Howley had used the word “chaos” eight times during his eve-of-match press conference and now “discipline” and the need to tighten it up against the Crusaders was being bandied around with equal abandon.
“Just the discipline, and keep the penalties down to less than 10, and just make sure we look after the ball,” said Stander, who became Lion number 831 at Eden Park, when asked what the Lions will need to improve on against the Crusaders.
The Munster back rower led the Lions’ tackle (14) and carry (17) counts, and added: “I think you’ve got to make decisions when you’re defending. We’ve got a few lessons out of this so we have got to look back and luckily we can learn from this.”
Jack McGrath, another Irish debutant alongside Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, and, from the bench, Peter O’Mahony, was asked a similar question and replied simply: “Discipline.”
For all that, the Lions could still have won the game, their late pressure in the Blues’ 22 forcing a ruck penalty in the 79th minute that Sexton, on since the 35th minute for the concussed Dan Biggar, swiftly sent to touch.
Having driven Stander over for their first-half try, the 5m lineout was the obvious gambit to seal victory yet the execution merely handed the ball back to the Blues, the result of miscommunication between hooker Rory Best, lock Itoje, and lifters Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler.
One of those nights? Gatland will be hoping so and the head coach was looking ahead positively.
“We have played a lot better tonight,” he said. “We have put ourselves in a position to win the game. You can take a lot of positives from that and you can take a lot of things in your control that you can change and improve. Saturday is going to be another tough encounter but those players will have been together and gelled for that little bit longer and so I expect to see an improvement from tonight’s performance again on Saturday.”
M Collins; M Duffie (TJ Faiane, 40 - HIA), G Moala (TJ Faiane, 65). S B Williams, R Ioane; S Perofeta (I West, 50), A Pulu (S Nock, 70); O Tu’ungafasi (A Hodgman, 57), J Parsons – captain (H Faiva, 70); C Faumuina (S Mafileo, 57); G Cowley-Tuioti (J Tupou, 57), S Scrafton; A Ioane, B Gibson (K Pryor, 65), S Luatua.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS:
L Halfpenny; J Nowell, J Payne (L Williams, 48), R Henshaw, E Daly; D Biggar (J Sexton, 35), R Webb (G Laidlaw, 75); J McGrath (J Marler, 53), K Owens – captain (R Best, 68), D Cole (K Sinckler, 54); M Itoje, Courtney Lawes (I Henderson, 75); J Haskell (P O’Mahony, 53), J Tipuric, CJ Stander.
L Williams 57-67.
Pascal Gauzere (France).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved